Words Like Music
When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of nine of Elmore Leonard’s short stories. They all demonstrate his excellent writing style—characters defined by their tone, but without annoying attempts to reproduce dialect on the page and minimalist descriptions that somehow manage to convey rich and detailed settings.
The collection is a nice mix of straight-up detective stories, westerns, and even a couple of quiet tales that transcend any genre classification. Probably the strongest story of the bunch is the one that gives the book its title, “When the Women Come Out to Dance,” a dryly humorous revenge tale with a nice little twist at the end. “Karen Makes Out” visits a character from Leonard’s novel Out of Sight, Karen Sisco. She is a federal marshal whose personal life becomes intertwined with her professional one. And Raylan Givens (from Riding the Rap and Pronto) makes an appearance in “Fire in the Hole,” a southern gentleman reuniting in his Tennessee hometown with a couple of his old friends.
“Hanging Out at the Buena Vista” is an interesting sort of love story, and “Chickasaw Charlie Hoke” displays Leonard’s characterization skills to the max. “The Tonto Woman,” a western tale of a banished wife, seemed to be one of the weaker works—the first page and a half tells of the future of the protagonist, but never is tied into the story and actually doesn’t need to be there at all.
Perhaps more important than his ability to spin a good yarn, though, is Leonard’s fresh approach to the subject matter that When the Women Come Out to Dance tackles. He addresses the love lives of the elderly, in a touching way. Several of the stories feature strong female characters (in some cases, such as “Karen Makes Out,” as protagonists) who are able to take care of themselves, unlike the stories written by many of Leonard’s peers. In his Western tales, Leonard discusses racial prejudice near the turn of the century in a realistic way without resorting to preaching.
Leonard also makes use of popular culture in several of the stories, as in this scene from “Spark”: “Linda Fiorentino. That was who Robin looked like, in that movie—he couldn’t remember the name of it—where she goes in a bar called Ray’s.” This technique could backfire if readers are unfamiliar with the celebrities mentioned, but Leonard makes it work, even uses it to establish a connection between the two characters. (By the way, we later learn that the movie was The Last Seduction.)
In the end, Leonard manages to entertain us and make us think, all at the same time, because he knows how to tell a story: let the characters do the talking, and get out of the way.